Kenya, hate speech lab, voting today

Kenya is a Galapagos of speech, a lush linguistic ecology of vernacular languages spoken by the country’s 42 distinct ethnic groups.  Political leaders speak to their communities in those languages, or in the lingua franca Kiswahili, sometimes using certain words and phrases to stir up fear and anger. Every Kenyan I met on a recent trip could name examples of inflammatory speech, such as the term "madoadoa," used to describe Kikuyus as spots or stains on the larger Kalenjin communities of Kenya’s Rift Valley. That term was widely used in 2007, during an electoral campaign that was followed by mass violence among ethnic groups, in which more than 1,500 people were killed. These days - especially today - when Kenya is holding another nationwide vote, this time to accept or reject a new Constitution - Kenyans are painfully aware of that violence, and anxious not to repeat it. There is a widespread consensus in Kenya, as in Rwanda, that inflammatory speech was an important catalyst of the violence in the beginning of 2008, and Kenya is now trying out quite drastic measures to contain inflammatory speech, such as indicting and prosecuting members of parliament for it, and inviting members of the public to report "hate speech" by reporting it to a special hotline, via text message. Kenyans have sent more than 5,000 reports to the hotline number 6397 so far, in less than a month.

This makes Kenya a laboratory for the study of inflammatory speech - for how to more clearly define such speech, and for trying out ways to curb it without chilling other forms of speech. Early reports seem to indicate that today's referendum will be carried out peacefully. We ardently hope so. Stay tuned for updated reports on the referendum, and on Kenya's experiments with inflammatory speech.